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Mountain Village's Under 5 Fair: building bonds and boosting literacy

On a recent Saturday afternoon at Mountain Village school, 45 kids showed up for the third annual Under 5 Fair. The idea is to have fun, get books into the hands of families, and build a relationship between the parents and school.

Volunteers set up booths with books, beachballs, and coloring supplies. And each kid got a superhero backpack to collect their goodies.

“Like a fair in any other place, you know, they go through each of the tables and be able to pick things up and put them in their bags,” said Amanda Queenie, the organizer. She’s a first-grade teacher and the reading coach at Mountain Village School. They had gotten books donated from bookstores across Alaska, and Claire Swan Early Learning Center sent sets of eight Alaska-themed books, with free shipping to boot. “So many people were like ‘Wait can we really have all eight?’ It’s like, yeah, go ahead. Just watching how excited kids were, like there was actually too much stuff to fit in the backpack.”

Queenie started this annual fair because she wanted her own three kids to have something fun to do.

“Three years ago, summer, I started thinking about how I grew up in Pennsylvania, and I had a lot of opportunities kind of outside of the regular school day setting that I got to do,” Queenie said. “And for my own kids, I was thinking I need to find things that we could do that, you know, give them at least some of those opportunities, maybe.”

Queenie also wanted to bring more books into the community. The school stopped hosting the annual scholastic book fair after it started charging a hefty fee for shipping during the pandemic. That was a main way books came in.

“And so, like, just trying to create other opportunities to get books into people's hands. Like, people want books. People want to be reading with their kids. But they don't really stock them at the AC or anything,” said Queenie.

Queenie noticed some kids starting school without some of the literacy skills she expects. So she spent the summer finding donors to contribute books, frisbees, toothbrushes, and math and reading materials that kids and parents can start working on at home to prepare for school.

But it wasn’t just about the kids. Queenie said that she also wanted parents to get more comfortable in the school environment.

“Sometimes here, it seems like maybe parents feel a little bit uncomfortable to come in the building and interact with teachers. And so just kind of trying to make it be really fun things, and free things, and things that will draw in a crowd,” said Queenie. “Like our cakewalk seemed to draw a crowd this past week. Things that just make people feel at ease so that later, maybe in elementary school or high school when the hard conversations do have to come with a teacher, there's already, like, that partnership and camaraderie and it's not so scary, you know.”

After the first Under 5 Fair, Queenie decided to start organizing quarterly events. Then last year, the school decided to ramp it up more and do them monthly. Now they have a little room for little kids, themed with decorations from Eric Carle’s children’s book “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”

“In March we did a Dr. Seuss-themed lit night where we read all Dr. Seuss books, and that was really popular. We also did a similar one at Christmas with Christmas books. Then we had a math night where we had a whole bunch of different math games set up in the cafeteria that parents could play. Like really, really big of everything, really big dominoes, really big Jenga pieces,” Queenie said.

Queenie said that all of the months-long planning and organizing was worth it because she got to see the excitement of the kids as they got their hands on the books.

Sunni is a reporter and radio lover. Her favorite part of the job is sitting down and having a good conversation.